Criterion Prediction #63: Hana-Bi, by Alexander Miller
Title: Hana-Bi a.k.a. Fireworks
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Cast: Takeshi Kitano, Kayoko Mishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terejima, Tetsu Watanabe
Synopsis: Rogue cop Nishi (Kitano) is struggling with his wife who’s dying of leukemia. Complicating matters, he’s borrowed money from the Yakuza who are out to collect their debt. Furthermore, Nishi’s thrown even further into despair when one of his fellow officers is paralyzed in a shooting in the midst of a stakeout while Nishi is visiting his wife in the hospital. Racked with guilt about his the imminent passing of his wife and the tragedy of his fellow officer, Nishi and his wife Miyuki take a sabbatical to a mountainside resort where the yakuza follow suit.
Critique: Hana-Bi is without a doubt Kitano’s masterwork, a colorful and expressive marriage of aesthetic devices; the fearless sense of artistry throughout the film as Kitano portrays scenes of graphic violence with the same degree of energy and beauty we’d expect in his other more tender dramatic explorations. Sure, this moody fable is replete with stylized violence, but for every seemingly random act of brutality, Kitano enforces a tonal refinement by incorporating his unique artwork (sometimes in the background, other times directly intercut into the narrative). The discernible shift is one of Kitano’s capricious but subtly utilized methods.
The apex of this marriage lies in the director’s droll, playful manner when Nishi is pointing a gun at a fleeing henchman; once the hammer to his gun clicks, we jump cut to a container of red paint splash against a canvas – a purgative variation on the theme of creative obstruction.
Kitano’s endlessly appealing filmography began with harsh, misanthropic entries such as his debut Violent Cop and Boiling Point – his deadpan sense of stoic humor juxtaposed with unrelenting violence was already visible. After the more eloquent Sonatine, the bewildering sex comedy Getting Any?, and the elegiac, coming-of-age Yakuza film Kids Return, Kitano’s cinematic vernacular seem to have evolved past his own divisive sensibilities as a type of therapeutic directorial catharsis following a motorcycle accident.
In his convalescence, Kitano took to painting, saying that doctors wanted to operate or else it would result in mental problems down the road. Kitano refused surgery, stating, “Good. I might become a crazy painter – like Picasso or Van Gogh!” Thankfully, Kitano’s creative fate lie in film. A self-reflexive artistry comes through Hana-Bi in an unguarded but world-weary demeanor, his technical acumen continued unabated with medium shots, static compositions, and jocular cuts; even in his films crueler moments, Kitano’s humor is maintained. Hana-Bi is one of the director’s more somber works (before Dolls and after A Scene at the Sea), but it’s also his most calcified expose of visual bravura.
When a director has a reliable and iconic collaboration with a composer, it’s a brilliantly fruitful tradition in cinema, as Kitano’s working relationship with composer Joe Hisaishi is. His delicate notations perfectly match the tone of the film and as a great score should, enhance the material at every possible juncture with an unmistakable air of bemoaned remorse.
Kitano is the kind of artist that I would deem as generous – the more he explores, the broader his canvas becomes. His sensitivity and appreciation of for the minutia of life (or the mono no aware aesthetic) is evident in films like Dolls, A Scene at the Sea and Kikujiro. However, he retains the tear-your-head-off sentiment with the more cynical Yakuza fare with the later Outrage duology, and his most recent effort Ryuzo and the Seven Henchmen, a bizarrely charming and bittersweet take on the dutiful ethics of an aging Yakuza (and his titular cronies) against a modern age certainly reverberates with silly affection.
Kitano’s instinctual creativity operates with an intuitive tendency to entertain while exploring the psychology of violence, ethics and the contradictory nature of honor in a modern society.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: The films of Takeshi Kitano have been on my Criterion wish list for quite some time, and this isn’t the first time or last time his name will appear. Outside of the New Yorker Films DVD of Hana-Bi (which is rumored to be OOP), there’s a gaggle of DVDs from various regions, of varying quality, which is one of the most accessible avenues to see the film. Aside from a limited pressing of Blu-rays from Third Window Films (which is, of course, Region B locked), DVD is all you get.
FilmStruck is currently hosting a few films from the director – Violent Cop, Boiling Point, Sonatine (featured in Criterion Prediction #26), and his 2003 version of Zatoichi. However, Violent Cop and Boiling Point have recently received a Blu-ray release via Film Movement, which presents films alongside Criterion’s on FilmStruck, and their libraries don’t seem to cross over. But this might generate interest in an undervalued filmmaker ripe for the Criterion treatment. Since Takeshi Kitano heads his own agency, Office Kitano, distribution might be more accessible than other studio films.